This story is part of a KXAN series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are convening a month after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — At the Texas Capitol this week, lawmakers questioned the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, or TCMHCC, about ways it is addressing social media threats and concerns as part of their investigations into the deadly Uvalde school shooting. The consortium is designed to identify distressed children and give them better access to care they need. But the special hearing revealed there is not a lot of oversight or tracking of social media threats.
“Have you addressed the social media and threatening messages posted in social media?” Senator Judith Zaffirini asked.
“That hasn’t been part of our work thus far. I understand how important it is and we do provide some information related to our services and have done some social media there, but blanket social media we are still developing that and those types of services,” said David Lakey, MD, presiding officer of TCMHCC.
KXAN gathered multiple perspectives on what is happening in our children’s schools to monitor suspicious activity online and the solutions others are proposing.
Most Instagram stories, Tik Tok videos or chats on apps like can Discord seem harmless at first glance. But dangerous posts — like we have seen in Manor ISD or Hutto ISD this past year — are disrupting learning at a wide scale. Others are affecting the mental wellness of students like Acacia Spradling.
“It happens and nothing is being done or being said,” Spradling said.
Spradling is using her voice to advocate for a better school monitoring system of online social media posts and threats. Why? Because a seemingly small, threatening post, resulted in her needing in-patient psychiatric treatment. She said threats made online called her a “clown” because of her makeup. These threats caused anxiety and sadness, and got so bad she was hospitalized for two weeks.
“They started doing social media mass texts and saying, ‘Well, who drove her to try to commit suicide?’” Spradling explained.
Before more people cause harm to themselves or others, she suggests some solutions. First, she said students and teachers should speak up if they see a suspicious post. Second, while staffing and resources are limited, she hopes school leaders can find ways to create social media pages to track threats in their districts.
“If they follow those pages and look deep into what they are posting, it is not hard to create an account and look at somebody’s story,” Spradling said.
She believes this will help reveal more cyber bullies attacking students. Findings from a Safe School Initiative report by the United States Secret Service and the Department of Education show most school shooters claimed they were victims of long-term bullying.
Researchers at Brooking, a nonprofit public policy organization, found almost half of those who perpetrate K-12 shootings report a history of rejection and many experiencing bullying.
Spradling’s mom said the change starts with monitoring social media at home. With the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, she also feels it might be time for stronger legislation.
“I am a person who is usually like ‘We don’t need the government telling us what to do,’ but there are certain situations where yes, if we are going to make a change, it has to be some drastic measures,” Shannon Spradling said.
What schools are doing now
With few monitoring mechanisms in place, some local districts have turned to Gaggle to monitor students’ online activity. The company’s clients include Austin ISD, Round Rock ISD and Eanes ISD. The CEO provided KXAN with data revealing incidents of threats of violence towards others have skyrocketed 209% since 2019. His staff is seeing hit lists and manifestos.
For Texas schools, Gaggle sent 26,000 alerts so far this past school year:
- 4,000 were harassment and bullying
- 13,000 were related to suicide and self-harm
- 8,000 were for indications of violence towards others
The Texas School Safety Center is the clearinghouse for safety and security information for all schools throughout the state. Center staff invited KXAN to its 2022 Conference this week to see how they train educators, administrators and school police to assess digital threats through public posts and pages. While school behavioral threat assessments have been mandated by the state since 2019, digital threat assessments are not, which experts said can be a limitation in tracking social media threats.
“It is not a part of the law. Could it be a part of the law and more outward facing? It absolutely could,” said Brian Clason, who manages curriculum and instruction for Texas School Safety Center.
Clason said since most students are on social media, digital threat assessment training is a critical piece in school safety to prevent dangerous acts. But he said it’s hard to legislate an issue that warrants more oversight at home.
Clason’s advice to parents: “Know what your kids are on, how they are using it and understand the protections or lack of protections it provides or doesn’t provide.”
On the school police side, mental health officer and lead trainer Frank Muniz of Katy ISD near Houston, said tips are crucial because there’s typically a hint that someone’s going to commit a violent act. He said although many school law enforcement officials trace tips, which can be viewed as reactive, it still yields a high success rate. He emphasizes that the tips must be specific, with a screenshot of the user profile so they can track down a potential suspect.
“I had the IP address and within three minutes after that, maybe five minutes after that I had the subscriber information from Comcast. It’s just that fast if you know what you are doing,” Muniz said.
Capacity and staffing shortages will limit the effectiveness of some of these solutions, but stakeholders and experts agree more training and monitoring needs to happen to tackle social media threats and dangerous posts to prevent violence at schools.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, you can receive help from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.